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Delmarva Heritage Series

* Joseph Nichols And The Movement Of Nicholites

Salisbury Times - October 11, 1963

It is difficult to think of colonial America without thinking of religions and freedom. From the colonial period to the present day many religious groups have found America, more or less, a welcome haven. The religious history of our nations shows that many old and established churches, as well as many newly organized ones, have influenced our way of life.  

Here on the Delmarva Peninsula in the 18th century was born one of the least known, but interesting religious groups of colonial America. The Nicholites, followers of Joseph Nichols, came into being in this area about 1760. Although one would, from time to time, find mention of these people in various books and articles, it has not been until recently that even a little light has been shed upon them-and still there is much we do not know about them.

DR. KENNETH L. Carroll, a native of Delmarva and at the present time a professor of religion at Southern Methodist University, is an outstanding Quaker historian, and has for the past few years been studying and collecting data about the Nicholites. This past year Dr. Carroll published his book, Joseph Nichols and The Nicholites. (For most of the information used in this article I am indebted to the work of Dr. Carroll.)

The religious society known as the Nicholites or "New Quakers" began in the 1760's in the rural region along the Maryland-Delaware border. Joseph Nichols, the founder of the new sect, was born about 1730 in the vicinity of Dover. A man with little formal education, he is said to have been "endowing with strong powers of mind and a remarkable flow of spirits."

By occupation Nichols was a farmer in Kent County, Delaware; yet seemingly Joseph Nichols and his friends "spent a great deal of their leisure in the pleasures of the day-dancing, fiddling, horseracing, and attendance of fairs where they were noted for their 'frolicking and merriment'. Lambert Hopkins, a contemporary of Nichols, has said that this was an age that was characterized by a 'laxity of manners and insensisibility of mind' among the inhabitants of the Delmarva Peninsula. Furthermore, he continued, "a general blindness with regard to their duty to God appeared mostly to prevail."

THE FUN-LOVING Nichols was often the center of attraction; he would entertain the people with his stories and songs. But one day at such a pleasure seeking gathering an event occurred which made a profound change in the life-pattern of Nichols. Like many other religious leaders before and after him, this sudden accident caused him to give deep thought to the meaning of life. "This episode he later described to Lambert Hopkins and others, saying that 'he was at a frolic where they met together for merriment, such as dancing, etc. At this frolic he was accompanied by a very particular and intimate friend, who was taken ill and died suddenly at that place. As he reflected on the circumstance, it was made the means of producing a radical reformation in his life and conduct."

THUS, by the early 1750's Nichols began a brief ministry which lasted until 1770. During this period of about a decade, Nichols traveled in Delaware, on both shores of Maryland, and in the south-eastern part of Pennsylvania. Following somewhat the Quaker practices, Nichols would preach only when he felt the impulse; otherwise the meetings would end in silence. When he was asked if he intended to preach that day he would often reply: "I mean to be obedient." And this meant obedience to an "Inward Director."

Later his followers wrote that Nichols "believed in the light that shines in the understanding of man and woman that discovers to them betwixt good and evil, right and wrong and reproves for evil and justifies for well-doing, to be the only means of grace to enable us to work out our salvation, and as he believed so he preached.

Many years after Joseph Nichols' death his friend and follower, Lambert Hopkins, wrote: "My acquaintance with Joseph Nichols commenced somewhere about the 1764 or 1765, when I was about 23 years of age, and continued during the space of seven or eight years; in which time, considerable intimacy subsisted between us, I being, as it were, his son in the faith. He appeared to me to be between 30 and 40 years of age. In stature, he was about middle size, dressed very plain, principally in undyed clothes."

ALTHOUGH JOSEPH NIHCOLS had been preaching for several years prior to 1766, that year was one of major external influences on both Nichols and the Nicholites. In that year the Quaker, John Woolman, made the first of his famous walking tours through the upper South. Journeying through Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Woolman made some major attacks on the institution of slavery as he was spreading Quaker teachings. The extent of Woolman's influence on Joseph Nichols and the Nicholites is difficult to evaluate but we know it existed. Shortly after Woolman's visit the Nicholites, almost as a group, manumitted their slaves. Woolman's style of clothing was also adopted by the Nicholites. There is no evidence that the Nicholites wore the undyed clothes before Woolman's journey, but within a few years the Nicholites were to become well known for this custom. A third influence of Woolman's is believed to have been his peace testimony, for Woolman opposed was as he opposed slavery. The Nicholites during their brief history also possessed "a very strong peace testimony."

For a period of four years, 1766 to 1770, Joseph Nichols and his followers helped to spread their teachings among the people of the middle region of the Delmarva Peninsula. Besides their strong opposition to extravagances of dress and slavery, they devoted much time preaching against a "hireling ministry." Forbidden by their ministry to acknowledge a "man-made ministry", the Nicholites adopted a marriage ceremony closely resembling that of the Quakers. The engaged couple, after receiving permission from the society, publicly exchanged vows without benefit of clergy, and all present at the ceremony were asked to sign the marriage certificate.

THE NICHOLITES also showed their opposition to an employed ministry by objecting to the Maryland tax of that period for benefit of the clergy and Church of England. Dr. Carroll gives a good example of Nicholite opposition. "William Dawson, apparently something of a zealot, expressed himself vigorously against a "hireling ministry." As a result of his outspoken opposition to the 'priests' tax' he was arrested and suffered imprisonment in the Cambridge jail which was about 30 miles from the place where he lived ... Dawson's arrest soon became widely known, and the reason for his imprisonment was quickly noised around-so that great crowds gathered on the lawn outside the jail. Dawson had some of the apostolic zeal that marked Christians in the New Testament period. Always eager to make known his convictions, he took advantage of this opportunity to explain his principles and to exhort his listeners to follow his example. Finally the authorities felt it better to release him than have him preaching to multitudes through the windows of the jail." In many other ways the Nicholites were like the Quakers, and thus it was that they were often referred to as the "New Quakers."

In the few brief years that Joseph Nichols was a "spiritual" leader among the people he attempted to shape their lives and beliefs along the lines mentioned. But his religious work was cut short by his relatively early death in December 1770. Lambert Hopkins, concerning Nichols' approaching death, records: "I have heard, that being asked on his death-bed in relation to the state of his mind, he said that he had delivered the messages of the Lord, had said all he had to say, and had nothing more to say. It is also stated that he closed his own eyes, and thus terminated his days in peace."

BUT THE DEATH of this leader did not by any means halt the growth and development of the movement he had established. As a man of great personal gifts and religious devotion, his influence aided the spiritual life of the people in Kent and Sussex Counties, Delaware, in upper Dorchester County, and what is now Caroline County, Maryland. Nichols sowed seeds among these people which when reaped became organized Nicholite Societies. Their decision to organize came in 1774 with the following statement: "Agreed by a meeting of friends assembled together on the fifth day of the twelfth month Anno Domy 1774 To Consider of Some Things Relating to the General Benefit of the Church of Christ the aforesaid assembly did then agree to Hold their Monthly meetings at the House of James Harriss the first and second day of the first week in Every Month (viz) the First Day for the worship of God. The Second Day to Consider of Such Business as may Concern us, as Touching our Religious Society. The aforesaid assembly did then Conclude by the Consent and approbation of many more brethren that friends Should Carefully Collect their Marriage Certificates and bring them to the Said Meeting in order to have them entered upon Record."

Fourteen men and three women, most of whom lived in present day Caroline County, said the agreement on behalf of the larger Nicholite Society. In a way official recognition was given the Nicholites by the General Assembly of Maryland in 1783 in a law "for the relief of the Christian society of people called the Nicholites, or New Quakers."

THE NICHOLITES, for some years after the beginning of the Society in 1774, continued to hold many of their meetings in members' homes and frequently attended worship in nearby Quaker meetinghouses. However, feeling the need for their own meeting places the Nicholites did finally establish at least three known buildings. The exact date for the erection of these buildings are not known, but the locations are pretty well established. By 1875 there were meeting houses at Centre (near Concord), Tuchahoe Nick (near Denton) and in the Northwest Fork (near Federalsburg); and in Delaware. Although we are not sure about meeting houses, the Nicholite strength was around Mispillion Hundred, Kent County, and the Muskmelon section of Sussex County.

Because a number of Nicholites moved from the Delmarva Peninsula to North and South Carolina, at least one society was organized in the Deep River section of Guilford County, N.C. Before long this society was active and large enough to need a meeting house of their own (had been using those of the Quakers), which was erected near Deep River prior to 1789. Shortly after 1800 another, although much smaller Nicholite Society or the Piney Grove Monthly Meeting, was set up over the line in South Carolina in the area of "Gum Swamp near Little Pee Dee."

The Nicholites, on the Delmarva Peninsula and in the Carolinas, had but a brief existence. In both areas, by the first two decades of the 19th century, various individual Nicholites and Nicholite Societies became not only more closely associated with Quakers, but became members of Quaker societies.

In closing his brief study of the Nicholites, Dr. Carroll writes, "The 'New Quakers' became Quakers, so that few traces of the old movement remains. Knowledge of the Nicholite Society has become such a fading tradition in the areas where the society once waxed strong that many who were born and have grown up in these localities have never heard of this unusual sect which one flourished on the Delmarva and which gave birth to the two smaller bodies in North and South Carolina."

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